Gene Stallings had a lot of experience in winning games. In seven years as Alabama's head coach, 1990-96, his teams won 70 games, an average of 10 per season. And six times he won the opening game of the season. The exception was his first game, when Bama fell to Southern Miss, 27-24. (Alabama also lost its second and third games under Stallings, but rebounded well.)
Stallings is not alone in having lost his first game as Alabama's head football coach. So did Paul Bryant in 1958, a closer-than-the-score 13-3 decision at the hands of an LSU team headed for the national championship. Bryant's teams frequently opened the season with tough games and he had an 18-6-1 record in his openers. There were a number of significant wins and a handful of crucial losses.
That very first game in a coach's career doesn't necessarily have a correlation to his final record. J.B. Whitworth lost his first tgame, 20-7, to Rice, and lost most of the rest of them, too, in a three-year career (1955-57) Whitworth's teams were 4-24-2, including 0-3 in opening games. Mike DuBose won his first game, 42-17, over Houston, but four years later was out with a 24-23 record.
A team that wants to win every football game obviously has to win the first one. But the vast majority of teams are not going to win all their games. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if the majority of teams have never had a perfect season, at least in the era of modern college football. And in practical terms, a loss at the beginning of the season usually is easier to overcome in the quest for a championship or national ranking or bowl bid than a loss later in the season.
There are notable exceptions, but in recent years top teams more and more frequently schedule a cupcake opener.
My personal favorite season-opening game was on Friday, September 10, 1971 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Southern Cal had trounced Bama, 42-21, in the 1970 season-opener, and the Trojans were the pre-season pick for the 1971 national championship. Alabama was coming off back-to-back six-win seasons.
That night, the Crimson Tide unleashed its wishbone offense with Terry Davis at quarterback and Johnny Musso the featured left halfback. Bama was up 17-0 and held on for a 17-10 decision. It was obviously one of the most important victories in Alabama history. Bama went on to an 11-1 record that year and would dominate college football through the 1970s, winning three national championships.
One will never know what the result of Alabama football might have been had Bama not won that game. Would Bryant have reverted to a pro-style passing game? How much longer would he have coached, because surely the winning motivated him to keep at his craft?
After that game I went back to the team hotel with a couple of Alabama sportswriters and also with Tom Siler, the outstanding columnist of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. It was nearly 1 a.m. on the East Coast when the Alabama-Southern Cal game ended, meaning the outcome would not make many Saturday morning newspapers, and it was not a televised game.
Siler said, "When word of this game gets back to the Southeast, tongues will be wagging."
A year earlier Siler had written, "Coach Bryant is in the twilight of a great career." In years to come Siler would laugh at himself as Bryant rolled up a record of 125-19-1 in those "twilight years" from 1971 through 1982. In addition to the three national championships, Alabama won nine Southeastern Conference titles.
Alabama's first three national championship seasons under Bryant included opening games with Georgia. Two were, as would be expected, Alabama wins, 32-6 in 1961 and 31-3 in 1964. In 1965 Georgia took advantage of poor SEC officiating to score a late touchdown and upset Bama 18-17 in Athens. But Bama would overcome that loss (and a later tie with Tennessee) and still win the national championship after beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Although most understandably remember the Sugar Bowl game against Penn State (the "Goal Line Stand" game, in Danny Moore annals) as the critical game in 1978, it was an impressive 20-3 win over Nebraska that started that championship season.
The 1973 season-opener set the tone for offensive efficiency as Alabama defeated California, 66-0. That Bama squad would score 477 points in 12 games. Although it was a national championship season because UPI awarded its title based on regular season games only, the year ended with a dramatic 24-23 loss at the hands of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
Although 1979 would be a national championship season, a 12-0 record, the season-opening 30-6 win over Georgia Tech was less than a classic.
As a player, Bryant had great memories of Rose Bowl games and of leading Alabama to victory over Tennessee while playing on a broken leg. But as a senior Bryant confessed that he was offsides on an Alabama touchdown play as the Crimson Tide suffered a 7-7 tie with Howard (now Samford) to open the 1935 season.
Coaches often say they remember the losses more than the wins, and Alabama has had some memorable season-opening losses in addition to the Southern Cal and Georgia setbacks. One of the most convincing (and critical) came at the beginning of the 1975 season when Missouri came to Birmingham and defeated Alabama 20-7. It was one of six seasons in the 1970s that Alabama would suffer one loss in the year. Bama outscored the opposition 367-52 in the remaining 11 games. In 1976 a 10-7 loss to Mississippi set the tone for a mediocre (by Alabama standards at the time) 9-3 season.
For sheer drama, it would be hard to match the season-opening game of 1985. Coach Ray Perkins' 1984 team had suffered season-opening heartbreak when Boston College and Doug Flutie came from behind and defeated Alabama 38-31, a game that ended the career of Tide tailback Kerry Goode. In 1985 in Athens, it looked like another gut-wrenching loss for Alabama. A blocked punt had given Georgia a 16-13 lead with a minute to play. After the kickoff, quarterback Mike Shula took the Tide 71 yards, hitting Al Bell for a 17-yard touchdown with five seconds to play and giving Alabama a 20-16 win.
For lack of drama, how about the 1922 Crimson Tide opener? Alabama 110, Marion Institute 0. It was that Bama team that would put Southern football on the map as later in the season the Crimson Tide went to Philadelphia and upset mightly Pennsylvania, 9-7. That was as shocking as if today Penn came to Tuscaloosa and defeated Alabama.
Although Alabama had a terrible 4-9 season in 2003, the year started well for Coach Mike Shula in his first game as a head coach. The Crimson Tide defeated South Florida, 40-17.
Ask Shula this week about the most important season-opening game and he'll tell you. It's Utah State. Because it's the next one.